Timing is why Felix Hernandez returning to the Seattle Mariners rotation Friday night couldn’t come at a better time.
The Mariners are coming off a four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers and will place a five-game winning streak on the line as they open a series with the division-leading Houston Astros. The offense has been rolling, the defense has been solid and the bullpen is coming together at the right time. A big part of that is the recent returns of Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura to the lineup.
The starting rotation, held together by duct tape and bubblegum, is finding a way to get it done too with excellent starts from Ariel Miranda and Andrew Moore during the Tigers series. James Paxton is also healthy and despite a rocky return appears to be a couple of timing issues away from his early-season form.
Now the starting five gets a boost that few players can offer.
Hernandez, the King, has been off the big league mound since April 25th. It took nearly two months of recovery and rehabilitation to return from a diagnosis of shoulder bursitis, and the 31-year-old is ready. Ready to get back to the mound, ready to get back to being the identity of the Mariners, and ready to lead a team to their first postseason birth since 2001.
While Seattle stands to get their ace back in spirit — and the psychological boost may be as important as anything — what version of King Felix returns remains to be seen.
Prior to hitting the disabled list, Hernandez made five starts and posted a 4.73 ERA and a 4.98 FIP in 26 2/3 innings pitched. A small sample size for sure, and one that may have been influenced by the injury that eventually led him to the DL, but it did reflect the decline the right-hander experienced in 2016.
After a year of discussions surrounding decreased fastball velocity, Hernandez showed an average of 92 miles per hour on the heater; up a tick or two from 2016, but still not where you’d like to see it. The lacking velocity and diminished command played into 2016’s poor numbers as his strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction. But in those five starts, Felix boasted 22 strikeouts to only three walks and despite lackluster results, has shown better overall stuff.
One of the culprits behind the ugly ERA and FIP numbers is a gaudy home run rate. If we look at xFIP, which normalizes a pitcher’s home run rate to league average, Hernandez sees a much more respectable 3.54 mark. The reason for the home run spike is hard to identify.
The soft, medium, and hard contact rates look normal. His fly ball and ground ball rates look normal too. Hernandez isn’t getting hit harder or giving up more long fly balls, yet more are leaving the yard. Some of this can simply be attributed to bad luck that over the course of a season will even out. Perhaps it can also be attributed to the major league wide increase in home runs that may have something to do with the baseball itself. And of course, our sample size is still pretty small.
We won’t know how the strikeout, walks, and home runs will normalize for at least a few weeks. But what we can be at least moderately confident in is that Felix, whatever level he is at, will offer a boost to the rotation.
Christian Bergman, Sam Gaviglio, and Chase De Jong have all had their moments while filling in and put together solid outings. But they own FIP’s of 5.97, 5.83, and 5.89 respectively. This isn’t to crack on the replacements, they’ve certainly done the job as best as possible. These just aren’t performances that playoff-caliber teams can afford regularly. Collectively the rotation depth has weathered the storm well enough to keep the Mariners in the race as we near July. Given the volume of injuries that alone is an impressive feat.
Both the ZiPS and Steamer projection systems project Hernandez to post a FIP in the 3.90 range for the rest of the season. While that number isn’t elite, considering the right-hander has missed the last two months, it does seem like a reasonable target to work with. Conceivably his walk rate will get closer to his career mark in the seven percent range and we should see the strikeout rate tick up a few percent points as well..
Does he have a Felix-calibre three months in the tank? The evidence would suggest that won’t be the case, but I don’t have to tell you what he thinks of the suggestion he’s a shadow of his former self.
The King is back, the Mariners are flying high, and the stretch drive is right around the corner. The timing for his return couldn’t be much better that right now.
Happy Felix Day.